Low Comedy, High Fun

When Stages decided to stage the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts, what were they thinking? Why court disaster by staging a show that's so obviously and consummately been done already? An actor can't very well reinterpret Groucho or Harpo; he can only aspire to doing a laudable imitation, at best be a shadow success. Indeed, the play has only been staged twice since it debuted 70 years ago, and never in the Southwest; no one will touch it with a shtick.

So why did Peter Webster -- most well known in Houston as director of the Alley's outreach program in years past, inspiring inner-city teenagers to enact Romeo and Juliet -- decide to make his Stages debut with such a dubious undertaking? And why did he take with him a troupe of actors as esteemed as Tug Wilson, James Belcher, Che Moody and Big Skinny Brown, with Webster himself donning Groucho's trademark mustache, cigar and cutaway coat? Why stage this nutty look-alike contest of a play?

I'll tell you why. Because it's so much damned fun.
With the Broadway run of Cocoanuts in 1925, the Marx Brothers were coming off a decade and a half of the crude and boisterous life of vaudeville and reinventing their act for bigger ticket success. With a script by George S. Kaufman and music by Irving Berlin, The Cocoanuts was an attempt to reach what The New York Times at the time called "the good society of Broadway (such as it is)." The Cocoanuts went on to became the brothers' first motion picture, in 1929. However, the Marx Brothers style of comedy is a kinetic one -- all rolling out of doorways and dogging of heels, conglomerations of hip-swivels, eye-squints, leers, minces, grimaces, prisses -- and is better suited to the pressurized dimensions of the stage than the limitless medium of the movies. The brothers' pace is like a rough tumble downhill; once you get rolling it's bottom over top until you careen -- kersplat -- into the swamp, or the final curtain, whichever. Stages does a fine job of recreating this tight timing; any slight slackness seen on opening night will surely, like a souffle that needs five more minutes in the oven, be solidly in place by the time this review hits the streets. Stages may be doing imitations of somebody else's style, but they execute it with enough comic instinct that it comes off as their own well-earned hilarity.

"Groucho" Schlemmer is an indolent hotel manager in Cocoanut Grove, a Palm Beach wannabe filled with swampland that Groucho's trying to pitch to the rich Mrs. Potter. Her daughter, Polly, is being romanced by both the oily Harvey Yates and the earnest-yet-poor desk clerk Bob Adams (originally played by the one straight-man Marx, Zeppo). Harpo and Chico are unpaying hotel guests -- "idle roomers," Groucho calls them -- and arrive with an empty suitcase. ("We'll fill it before we leave," Chico tells Groucho.) Throw in a thieving vamp and you've pretty much got the predictable cast of made-to-order marks for the brothers' high jinks. The plot is present only as the merest of intrusions. We suffer through a love duet that, by its badness and earnestness, sets up the comic relief of the three brothers' entrance. Irving Berlin is not at his best here; we're in fact relieved to see Harpo sneaking into the wings to interrupt the umpteenth sappy rendition of "I'll be loving you-o-o-oooo-o-o-oooo ... always" between saccharine Polly and her dentifrice swain.

The Marx Brothers have a disingenuous high/low appeal -- they're dumb and dumber, yet consistently outsmart all their straight men and women. The topper's Harpo, who with a mime's innocence is both addled child and con-artist of the universe. Groucho is a mere wannabe next to his mute, horn-honking brother. Peter Webster plays Groucho with a complacent offhandedness, his bad-pun-a-thons tossed off with crabby dispatch. One stretch between him and Chico describing Florida resort planning is historic for its unrelenting, moan-a-minute marathon. (Groucho: "Now, over here, on this site, we're going to build an Eye and Ear Hospital. That's going to be a site for sore eyes." Chico: "I see." "Over here is the old coffee factory. I grew up playing on the grounds. All along the river there, those are the levees ..." "That's the Jewish neighborhood?" "Well, we'll pass over that." And so on.)

James Belcher's yer-favorite-guy rendering of Chico may be even better than the original. As the lesser known Marx Brother (Zeppo isn't lesser known, he's simply forgotten), the actor playing Chico doesn't have the same burden of comparison as those playing Harpo and Groucho. Fitting snugly into Chico's undersized jacket, Belcher's hale-fellow-well-met and thank-you-for-your-pocket watch bonhomie is most engaging. Adrian Walter Townes' Harpo seemed too effeminate at first, but then he warmed his way into getting the audience to embrace his interpretation of Harpo as an angelic idiot.

The play's mucho gusto success comes in large part from the excellence of the non-Marx Brothers parts; they may be written as mere shills for the brothers' humor, but under Webster's deft directing, all become farcical personages in their own right. From Linda Ewing as the garter-flashing vamp to Che Moody as the blue-blooded Mrs. Potter, all play their stock characters with a true comic nose, a melodramatic rowdiness that delights at its own over-the-topness. Tug Wilson's piano player hits all his comic notes, if not all his keyboard notes. And Big Skinny Brown -- with his perpetual Big Skinny squint -- stole the show's riotous high point with his bare bosomed "I want my shirt" sung to the tune of Carmen's toreador song. Make that man an honorary Marx Brother.

Much of modern comedy owes debt to the Marx Brothers, from Woody Allen's Groucho-type asides to the no-gag-is-too-silly Monty Python troupe. Spawning a goofiness so total and in sync, it makes sense they're family: where else is one relaxed enough to be so completely dopey and smart? In 1925, when The Cocoanuts was playing to packed Broadway houses, The New York Times critic described it as "perfect clownery," with "none of the snobbery of cleverness." During Christmas, with its Noël Coward revue, Stages aimed at the droll snobbery of clever wit; with The Cocoanuts, Stages hits the low note, and with much better success.

The Cocoanuts plays through March 19 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-8243.


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